Book Review: The Poisoner’s Handbook

Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Test

poisonTitle: The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
Author: Deborah Blum
Publication Date: January 1, 2010
Pages: 319
Publisher: Penguin Press
Date Started: November 9, 2018
Date Finished: November 14, 2018
Format: Paperback

Still continuing to review the books I read for the N.E.W.T.s read-a-thon (still a few more to review, sorry not sorry), I chose to read The Poisoner’s Handbook to fulfill the requirement for an “Acceptable” in History of Magic. The prompt was a book that would fit in at the Hogwarts library and I picked this one because it sounded like a title that you would actually find at Hogwarts (though the poisons would probably be quite different!)

I dove into this book without knowing too much about it, expecting it to be about poison. In that regards, I was not mistaken. What I thought I was going to read about poison was an exciting list of poisons and how they kill a person.

Nope. That’s not what I got.

oh well

What I did get was a history of forensic medicine and the autopsies that developed the tools that are used in court today to convict murderers and determine cause of death. I learned all about the political and social ramifications of prohibition in New York City. I mean, I generally knew about Jazz and speakeasies, but I personally was not aware of how this all lead to the first science-based coroner’s office and the vast dangers that came with the lack of legal alcohol. Don’t drink methanol, guys, not cool.

The chapters of the book were organized by poisonous substance, though I’m not certain that was the best way to go about doing it. Essentially, everything was presented chronologically with mixing of substances between chapters. The book follows the motivations and discoveries of Charles Norris (medical examiner) and Alexander Gettler (toxicologist). Through the chapters, case studies are presented one at a time that are meant to exemplify the climate in the United States before delving into the methods the two men created in order to quantify the tell-tale signs of poison (something that had never been done before) and concretely determine whether foul play was involved in deaths (to the dismay of many a “fine” citizen).


Even though this book was not what I was expecting, I really enjoyed it. As I mentioned, I really knew nothing about this time period and it was fascinating to learn the history of the discoveries from a viewpoint I don’t often read about. While I do wish there had been a little more about the actual way in which the poisons kill people, I could also see that muddying the story that was presented. Walking through the cases was enthralling, and knowing the advancements currently available in the field, it’s fascinating to see how far we’ve come and how we got there.

Overall, 3/5 moose

3 moose



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